Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

"I'm staying. And I'm not buying a gun either."

I don't know too much about Westerns; unless you count the ones by Akira Kurosawa I've only seen The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars and Back to the Future Part III, and the first two of those were many years ago. But The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has made a huge impression on me. It's the most profound experience I've had watching a film in recent months. I'm only vaguely aware of the tropes and themes of serious Westerns, but this film has so much subtext I hardly know where to begin. Plus it taught me the etymology of the word "dude", which apparently predates Bill and Ted by a century and a half. Who'd have thunk it?

Much of the film takes place in flashback and structurally would doubtlessly reward repeat viewings. Rance (a likeable and charismatic James Stewart), now a senator, returns with his wife Hallie to a town much changed by the advent of rail travel and the amenities it brings. They are there for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, a fascinating character; cue extended flashback.

A young Rance, travelling by the inevitable stagecoach, is moving west straight from law school. Immediately we have a character representing law and order moving towards an area synonymous with lawlessness, and this thematic tension informs the whole film; justice versus revenge. It's not the kind of cultural reference one usually associates with Westerns, I assume, but I'm reminded of Aeschylus' Oresteia, albeit with a much more ambiguous conclusion. But for now we simply observe Rance trying and failing to apply the rules he knows to his new environment. Liberty Valance will not, as we will see, be tried, convicted and imprisoned.

Rance's antithesis- and love rival- is Tom Doniphon, a hugely watchable and charismatic John Wayne- oh, and did his catchphrase "pilgrim", must beloved of Preacher, come just from this film? Tom is none too intellectual, very old-fashioned with the ladies to put it mildly, and at ease with the rough justice of the west. He's also obviously the alpha male, something which it seems at this point that Rance will never be.

Nevertheless, stubbornly law-abiding Rance begins to have an effect on the town, teaching literacy and generally acting as a mild civilising influence, even rousing the whole (male) town to exercise their franchise and vote in favour of statehood, which is clearly not so much a metaphor of a state of law and civilisation than, well, quite literally that. Men like Rance (and they are men at this time) have power in a state that they do not in a mere territory, and those like Valance, who thrive from lawlessness, are naturally prepared to use violence to prevent the end of their natural habitat.

Rance is slowly gaining in stature and confidence, though. It's precisely his civilising tendencies that lead Hallie to abandon alpha male Tom for him, a sure sign of the way the wind is blowing. But he inevitably ends up in a shootout with Valance... and inexplicably winning, seemingly abandoning all his principles. And yet, as we eventually discover in the film's big reveal, the shooter was in fact a hidden Tom. The character personifying rough justice eventually, despite misgivings, paves the coming of law and order. But he's yesterday's man, and all he can do is provide a future for others, not himself. He's a tragic yet compelling figure.

The flashback ends, we return to the present, and eberyone decides to ignore the inconvenient fact that Rance, who owes his popularity to having killed Valance and now feels quite firmly as though he belongs in a town which has now firmly adapted to his values, did no such thing. Everyone decides to ignore the truth and print the legend. But then, don't we all when it comes to the Old West?

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